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DEAR READER: Research shows the facts behind Show Me the Errors contest

Friday, May 6, 2011 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 1, 2011

Roy Peter Clark, a writer who teaches others to write well, has spent more than 30 years helping journalists improve their craft. Clark wrote "The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English," the book given to winners of ColumbiaMissourian.com's Show Me the Errors contest.

I interviewed Clark as part of a project assessing the first four months of errors submission. I told him about the contest, which encourages readers to submit errors they see on the Missourian's website. He said I would be amused to know that he, too, invited readers to scrutinize his book and e-mail him about any errors.

Show Me the Errors for April

Participation in the Show Me the Errors contest during April showed a marked drop in both participants and reported errors. There were 56 participants overall, which includes folks who erroneously posted comments on articles in the error box — a recurring problem we're working to fix.

Reported errors in April totaled 53 — another significant drop from the 102 in March. Full disclosure is required, though: Jim Terry, who tallied up his sixth win in seven months, only submitted eight entries in April, compared to 45 in March. 

You, too, can be a participant and possibly the winner in the Show Me the Errors contest. The prizes are a Missourian mug and a hardcover copy of Roy Peter Clark’s “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.” To report an error, look for the first box at the end of every online article. Comments on articles can be submitted in the second box at the end of stories.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a night news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She just spent a bundle of money on even more books about words, usage, grammar, punctuation and editing. Seems as if there might be something to learn in them. 


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And they did. Three were spotted in the first edition.

Yes, even the great Roy Peter Clark makes mistakes. His book, mind you, was published by Little, Brown and Co., a highly regarded publisher. The errors will be corrected in the paperback edition of his book, to be published in August, Clark wrote in an e-mail.

A reader informed him that the female biographer in Chapter 35 couldn't possibly have graduated from Williams College in the late 1940s. The reader, a Williams graduate, pointed out that Williams was still an all-male school back then. The correct school? Wellesley College.

The second error was when he mistook correlative conjunctions for coordinating conjunctions. Interestingly, Clark said, in both cases the terms begin with the same letter.

The third error occurred when he quoted a novel written in German. Clark confused the word “aber,” which means “but,” with “ader," which means "blood" or "vein." Because Clark doesn’t know German, he asked a friend who knows German to verify it for him. But the verification failed.

I see these errors happen in copy editing all the time. The take-home lesson: If copy editors know what the common usage should be when they read a sentence, they read over the mistake. Why? The editor's mind fills in the blank.

As a copy editor at the Missourian and ColumbiaMissourian.com, I've spent close to 10 hours each week this semester testing the strength of my eyes and my will. I've stared at each word, pondered each statement, looked up each fact. Copy editing, I have discovered, is hard work. It demands that I question the slightest doubts I have. If there is no doubt, something must be wrong. Yet we still fail at times.

That made me curious about what errors ColumbiaMissourian.com editors have commonly made in their work. I analyzed a slice of the 936 entries submitted from October through February. I analyzed 699 — 73 percent — of the entries. The ones I tossed out were either repeat entries or factual errors found in Associated Press articles.

The errors submitted fell into four broad topics: grammatical, factual, computer-generated and comments. The numbers show 53 percent were grammatical errors, 15 percent were factual and 3 percent were computer-generated. Surprisingly, 28 percent were comments about the content of the articles that had been misfiled in the Show Me the Errors box instead of the comment box featured at the end of each article.

Some examples of the kinds of grammatical errors found:

  • heeling power instead of healing power
  • an yellow flower instead of a yellow flower
  • less than 90 days instead of fewer than 90 days
  • staring position instead of starting position
  • criteria identifies instead of criteria identify
  • comeptition instead of competition
  • 150 hour program instead of 150-hour program

I defined factual errors as those that confuse or misinform the public. When the word "competition" is misspelled "comeptition," you can still figure out what is meant. But when a person named Robin Lang is identified as "Robbie Lang," it points to a different person entirely.

Some examples of the kinds of factual errors found:

  • An erroneous temperature conversion.
  • Erroneous game scores.
  • Incorrect name of the president of FOX News.
  • James Naismith, who died in 1939, could not have coached at sports arena Allen Fieldhouse, which was dedicated in 1955.

Some errors, unfortunately, occur when the copy editing software we use makes it easy to skip or create an extra space between words.

  • "Thedriver" is really just "the driver."

Thank you, readers, for pointing out these errors and setting the bar higher for the Missourian, for copy editing and for journalism.

Clark said he's often benefited from exceptional copy editing. In his book, he talks about Chico's, a clothing store with non-traditional clothing sizes. He has accompanied his wife to the store over the years, spending hundreds of dollars there, so he thought he knew that the store's largest size had to be a 4. But his copy editor, unconvinced, decided to visit the store's website, where she discovered its size chart. The correct answer: 3.

This is the kind of vigilance we need in copy editing.

As newsroom budgets shrink, so too does the number of copy editors, Clark said. As a result, he has seen the frequency of inaccuracies multiply. This occurrence proves that nothing substitutes for good copy editing.

"Some newsroom managers would say we can’t afford to do it," he said. "But some would say we can’t afford not to do it."

With the latter statement, I agree.

Regina Wang is a graduate student who considers Roy Peter Clark her intellectual crush.


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Comments

Michael Williams May 6, 2011 | 3:21 p.m.

Some errors, unfortunately, occurr when the copy editing software we use makes it easy to skip or create an extra space between words.
_____________________________

Uh oh. There's a spelling error (the word "occurr") in an article about...um...errors.

Why do I think it's.....deliberate?

If so, I'M FIRST!!!!!!!!!

PS: I'm expecting a gift certificate to CC's. Fifty dollars would be fine.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 7, 2011 | 9:27 a.m.

Well, you fixed the spelling error with "occur"....now where's my gift certificate!!!!!

lol

(Report Comment)

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